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'Barrios to Burbs' examines middle-class Mexican American families

Agius Vallejo, the author of the new book,
Agius Vallejo, the author of the new book, "Barrios to Burbs."

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Moving up the social ladder isn't easy for anyone, but the path to the middle-class is more difficult for those of Mexican-American descent. Additionally, it's especially difficult for those who come from poor families or who have parents with unauthorized immigration status.

USC professor Jody Agius Vallejo's new book, "Barrios to Burbs," examines the complicated rise of the Mexican American middle-class. She says this group faces many obstacles mainstream middle-class Americans don't. For instance, they often feel pressure to give money back to relatives across the border, even when their own finances are shaky. They also experience discrimination at work and in society at large.

Vallejo joins the Brand & Martinez show to discuss the difficulties Mexican-American immigrants face as they strive to make it in America.

Interview Highlights:

On what the Mexican-American middle-class looks like:
"It is a population that looks very similar to middle-class whites, on paper, if you look at demographic data. They have the same types of characteristics in terms of education, their income levels, home ownership and occupations. There are a few differences though. The Mexican-American middle-class population is not monolithic, there are differences in class background, some grow up poor, some grow up middle-class, and if we just look at Los Angeles, for example, about 25 percent of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles are middle class."

On how Mexican American immigrants differ from other immigrants:
"We saw that Italians, Jews, white ethic immigrants who arrived at the turn of the 20th century were also similarly poor and uneducated as many Mexican-Americans are today, and they've certainly achieved upward mobility into the middle-class, and so Mexican Americans are very similar to these groups. One thing that makes Mexican Americans different than today's immigrants they start off further behind other immigrant groups that we mentioned earlier over half go Mexican Americans arrive in this country unauthorized, they start off typically in low-wage jobs, so their climb to the middle-class might take a little bit longer than it has for other immigrant groups. Other Latino immigrant groups start off similarly disadvantaged, Salvadoreans, Central Americans, and so they're certainly similar in that regard."

On how strong familial ties can be an obstacle to social mobility:
"Those who are socially mobile, or who are raised in low-income, poor neighborhoods, I call them middle-class pioneers, they're often the first in their families to enter the middle-class, so they retain very strong ties to poor relatives to ethnic communities, so they have to manage these relationships where they're constantly being asked for financial and social support. They may have parents who have toiled in low-wage factory jobs and they lack insurance benefits or retirement so they often have to care for their parents or help other family members who are trying to make it into the middle class as well."

On how social negativity affects Mexican Americans' upward mobility:
"One of these obstacles is that we've seen for the last several decades, and especially this last three years during the great recession, where Mexican Americans and middle-class Mexican Americans are negotiating a very negative social context where politicians, media and others disparage Mexicans, Latinos in general, but Mexicans in particular. This affects how middle-class Mexican Americans live their lives. So sometimes they're disparaged in the workplace if they speak Spanish. They have to deal with stereotypes of Mexican Americans. I had respondents who were mistaken for janitors or valets or nannies. Valets even while they're at work and dressed in professional attire. They often listen to their coworkers vilify Mexican Americans, so these are things that non-Latinos do not have to deal with."

On how politics is affecting the upward mobility of Latinos:
"As we've seen the Mexican American, or Latino, population growing in new destination states in the South and the Midwest, we've certainly seen policies, for example, follow the growing Latino population. Policies that seek to vilify Latinos in places like Alabama and Georgia, so that often follows the kind of political rhetoric and media attention that really only focuses on the unauthorized population or only reinforces these stereotypes that Latinos are all poor and uneducated, which is not the case."

On how marketers are trying to tap into the growing Latino population:
"The new Mexican American middle-class has enormous purchasing power and it's increasing every year and this is something that's interesting because this is something that marketers have certainly noticed as have other types of organizations, banks, financial institutions, major corporations are all trying to target Latinos and middle-class mexican americans."

On why it's not wise to lump all Latinos into one category:
"One of the problems is that politicians and marketers and others tend to homogenize this population. There are differences in terms of how people identify racially and ethnically, there are differences with language preference, there are differences in terms of generation. If you just try and target the Latino population by focusing on Spanish language for example, we know that over the generations the Spanish language becomes dead, so you're not going to reach a certain segment of the population if you just focus on Spanish."

On how economic background affects Mexican American identity:
"I find that those who grow up poor, who grow up low-income are much more like to identify as mexican american for example. They're much more likely to retain certain cultural identifiers, whereas those who grow up in middle-class households, white neighborhoods, they really view themselves as much closer to whites. Now this doesn't say they don't feel symbolically Mexican, eating Mexican food or dashing at a piñata at their daughter's birthday, these are things that have permeated all of American culture, these aren't just specific to Mexican Americans, but there are certainly differences. Class background really affects the ways in which Mexican Americans identify and the types of cultural or ethnic things that they hold on to in their lives."


Jody Ages Vallejo teaches sociology at USC. Her new book is called "Barrios To Burbs, The Making of The Mexican-American Middle Class."